AFC North: Reggie Dunn

Observation deck: Steelers-Panthers

August, 30, 2013

Some thoughts from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 25-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Thursday's preseason finale:
  • The only way Derek Moye doesn't make the 53-man roster is if the Steelers keep just four wide receivers. The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder clearly separated himself from the other receivers vying for a spot behind Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Markus Wheaton. Moye caught two passes for a team-high 55 yards Thursday; he received bonus points for chasing down Josh Norman from behind after the Carolina cornerback intercepted a Landry Jones throw and had nothing but green grass in front of him. Moye's hustle saved a touchdown and the Panthers settled for a field goal.
  • Jones played the entire game and finished with a thud after a great start. The former Oklahoma star looked masterful in directing an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the Steelers' opening possession. Jones looked like the rookie he is after that. He completed just 13 of 32 passes for 149 yards and three interceptions. The last pick came on his final pass of the game and, the Steelers have to hope, the foreseeable future. Wide receiver Justin Brown fell down on the play, but Jones still looked a long way from being NFL-ready. If injuries force Jones -- the No. 3 quarterback -- to play, the Steelers are in trouble anyway.
  • The toughest roster decisions the coaches and front office have to make might come at linebacker. Undrafted rookie Alan Baxter again put consistent pressure on the quarterback, and he will be tough to cut. But do the Steelers like him enough on special teams to keep a fifth outside linebacker? There appear to be at least four solid candidates for two backup spots at inside linebacker, and it probably comes down to special teams when sorting through those players.
  • If veteran Brian Moorman had to beat out Drew Butler, I think the latter hangs on to his job as punter. Neither one stood out during preseason play, and Butler is younger. He is also the incumbent.
  • Felix Jones ran well, gaining a game-high 56 yards on 14 carries and presenting the coaches with a tough decision at running back. Jones is probably the odd man out if the Steelers keep four running backs on their 53-man roster as well as fullback Will Johnson. But the former first-round pick could have convinced Pittsburgh to keep another running back while rookie Le'Veon Bell recovers from a mid-foot sprain.
  • I don't think Curtis Brown is in trouble as far as making the team, but the former third-round pick didn't help himself at Carolina. He was beaten twice for touchdowns by Ted Ginn Jr., who torched the Steelers with 149 receiving yards.
  • Wheaton saw his most extension action of the preseason, and the rookie third-round draft pick produced mixed results. He dropped three passes, including one that Jones put right on his hands. But Wheaton also showed why the Steelers are so high on him. He blew past a Panthers defensive back in the first half and would have caught a long touchdown pass had Jones not put too much air under the ball.
  • I know fans were screaming when Reggie Dunn fielded a punt inside the Steelers' 5-yard line and got tackled for a safety after he went backward while trying to reverse field. But Dunn isn't going to make the team anyway, and the undrafted rookie was just trying to make a play. The Steelers were intrigued by his speed, but one thing worked against Dunn from the start: the frequency of touchbacks in the NFL has de-emphasized kickoff returners.
  • What will the 53-man roster look like? I will take a shot at projecting it Friday in a post that will be up before noon. I expect the Steelers to make some cuts Friday afternoon, and they could do as they did in 2011, when they made the majority of their roster moves a day before the 53-man rosters had to be finalized.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will have competition at running back and outside linebacker this year, although I believe rookies Le'Veon Bell and Jarvis Jones will win those jobs. The most wide-open battle in Pittsburgh is in the return game.

The release of Chris Rainey in January forces the Steelers to find another kickoff returner, and the promotion of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to the No. 1 and No. 2 wide receiver spots, respectively, likely means Pittsburgh will go with a new punt returner.

As the Steelers get ready to take the field for the first of three voluntary minicamps this week, you could make the case for around 10 players to compete over bringing back kicks and punts. But, when looking closely at the candidates, I see four as serious contenders to become the new returners.

On kickoff returns, running back and free-agent addition LaRod Stephens-Howling has to be considered the favorite. His role as a returner decreased the past two seasons in Arizona, but he averaged 25.7 yards and scored three touchdowns on kickoffs in his first two seasons in the NFL.

The one returner who could unseat him is undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn from Utah. He set the NCAA record for career 100-yard returns (five) and single-game 100-yard kickoff returns (two).

“He is an exciting player. He ran in the 4.3s on his pro day,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said of Dunn at a recent fan forum with season-ticke holders. “We’re excited because the speed (is something) you can’t teach. You have to give that young man the opportunity to prove what he can or can’t do on the field.”

Colbert said he's anxious to see how Dunn can handle punts. According to Colbert, Dunn didn't return many punts in college because Utah had others who were "quite honestly, better during his time there."

Dunn's only way of making the roster is as a return specialist. As Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, coach Mike Tomlin has a history of using a roster spot for a player who can only return kicks, Allen Rossum in 2007 and Stefan Logan in 2009. But both didn't contribute much else other than being a return specialist and lasted one season in Pittsburgh.

The other players who should get the opportunity to return punts are rookie sixth-round pick Justin Brown and David Gilreath. Brown averaged 13.5 yards per punt at Oklahoma and scored a touchdown. Gilreath, who holds the Big Ten for career kickoff returns, also ranked sixth in the Big Ten with an 8.8-yard average on punt returns before going undrafted in 2011. Last season, he returned two punts for a total of eight yards.

There's not as much mystery at returner around the AFC North. The Ravens kept Jacoby Jones and the Bengals re-signed Brandon Tate, but Adam Jones and Onterio McCalebb will push Tate. The Browns are expected to replace Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs with Travis Benjamin on punts and Dion Lewis on kickoffs.
The AFC North is finishing up the position ranks today, and I will have a wrap-up on all of the rankings Friday. Let's look at special teams, and the rankings are based on specialists and not coverage or return units as a whole.

1. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens get the top spot based on the assumption that Jacoby Jones will remain the primary returner. He proved to be the most explosive returner in the NFL last season with four touchdowns (including playoffs). Justin Tucker exceeded expectations as a rookie last season with his accuracy (led the division at 90.9 percent) and distance on field goals. Punter Sam Koch has been solid for years and recorded a career-high 40.8-yard net average last season.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: Kevin Huber was the best punter in the AFC North last year. He led the division in net average (42.0) and punts inside the 20-yard line (33). Mike Nugent slipped to 82.6 percent conversion rate, but he was perfect inside 40 yards. The biggest concern with Nugent is durability. He has finished two of the past three seasons on injured reserve. The Bengals have some options at returner with Brandon Tate, Adam Jones and Onterio McCalebb, the fastest player at this year's NFL scouting combine.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Journeyman kicker Shaun Suisham has solidified himself in Pittsburgh. He has converted over 90 percent of his field goals in two of his three seasons with the Steelers. There's more uncertainty at punter and returner. Rookie punter Drew Butler was 25th in the NFL in net average (37.8), which is why he'll have competition this year from Brian Moorman, a two-time Pro Bowl punter. After spending 12 seasons with the Bills, Moorman had a below-average season last year with the Cowboys. At returner, the Steelers have to decide between LaRod Stephens-Howling, rookie sixth-round pick Justin Brown and undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn.

4. Cleveland Browns: The Browns didn't re-sign two Pro Bowl specialists from last year, kicker Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs. The Browns downgraded at kicker, going from the one constant in their expansion era (Phil Dawson) to a player who is on his ninth team in five seasons (Shayne Graham). Graham ranked 23rd in the league last season with a 81.6 percent success rate on field goals. Cleveland also parted ways with ineffective punter, Reggie Hodges. Spencer Lanning and T.J. Conley, both of whom were out of the league last year, will compete for the punter job. Travis Benjamin is expected to replace Cribbs on punt returns, and Dion Lewis may take over on kickoffs.